I wanted to tell you about our "Solar System Walk" on the beach this weekend. This is a great project for middle schoolers, and grownups too. We got to see the true distance ratios of the planets.
You will need:
To have read about the Solar System and know a little about our planets and how they go around the Sun and stuff. (We read the Magic Schoolbus book about the planets together, and the older boys read lots more.)
A really long, sandy, relatively unpopulated beach. We needed about a quarter mile (A field or stadium might work, let me know)
Stuff washed up on the beach to use as markers, or you can make flags or signs if you're really organized.
Snacks and juice, and sunblock.
What to do:
We hung a large, bright towel or beach blanket where it would be visible from far off. An orange towel in a tree which stuck out over the beach worked for us. This is the SUN! We drank orange juice at the Sun, filling ourselves up with light particles which would travel with us in our tummies. Light particles travel very fast (It takes about eight minutes or so for a light particle to reach the Earth from the Sun. If your kids are older (all over 6?), you can make this trip at light speed!)
We then walked from the Sun to our first planet, Mercury. Mercury is approximately 55 million km from the sun, and we decided that one pace would equal ten million kilometers, so our Mercury was a rock 5.5 paces from the Sun. We continued to pace our planets out, placing a piece of beach trash to symbolize each planet.
Venus is around 50 million km from Mercury, which is 5 paces. We used a coconut for Venus.
Earth is 41 million km from Venus, or 4 paces. We propped up a blue boogie-board for the Earth, so that we would see our pretty blue planet from far away.
Mars is 78 million km from Earth, or around 8 paces. Mars was a good big rock.
Okay, you've got your inner planets now. If your beach is wide enough, you can run orbits around the Sun a bit. Remember to label your planets as you go: just write their names in the sand beside them. In between the inner and outer planets there is an asteroid belt, so throwing rocks into the sea is fun.
The next planet is Jupiter, 550 million km away from Earth. That's 55 paces! Be sure your pacer is a reliable older child who can count over a hundred, from here on.
Saturn is next, 651 million km or 65 paces on.
Uranus is 1442 million km or 144 paces.
Remember to put a large rock, flag or other easily visible object in each planet spot. Pause here to look back at the sun. It's so far away! And the Earth looks so little, and so close to the Sun! Discuss how much colder the outer planets are. Imagine how far around their orbits go. It must take them a really long time to orbit the Sun!
Neptune is 1633 million km or 163 paces on. Look at the Sun! Can you still see the Earth?
Pluto is not strictly a planet any more, but it is still dear to us, so we walked to Pluto, 1412 million km or 141 paces on. The Sun from Pluto is hardly visible, and the smaller light particles were tired. We all thought it was amazing how far apart the outer planets are (Earth is mere steps from the Sun: Pluto a quarter mile out).
If you take with you information on the numbers of moons and so on, you can place smaller rocks around your planets and draw their rings. We tried to remember, and got it almost right. On the return trip, you can pretend to be returning astronauts. The kids really enjoyed this! I think it's a fun thing to do on a sunny day. This really helps us to visualize just how vast our solar system is. And once you hace this frame of reference, you can almost begin to think about how big SPACE is. Almost, but not quite.